Jacqueline Vance took a while to return to consciousness. She could feel beach sand against her face, a touch of warm, tropical rain tapping away at the fabric of her jacket. She tried moving, and groaned. Her limbs ached. She moved anyway, forcing herself upright with the tired endurance of a woman who had spent the last nine months pushing through exhaustion. She tried to blink the grit from her eyes. Her head was foggy. What was she doing out here?
She scanned the beach around her. There was the shack, just a hundred yards or so along the shoreline. She glanced back towards the miniscule scrap of forest that the micro island was able to sustain, and stared. Her mind was slow today, cogs catching against themselves as she tried, and for the most part, failed, to think. Had it always looked like that, with so many of the palm trees torn apart and smoldering, the fire fighting a losing battle with the rain?
She let out another groan, then slapped herself. The pain brought a dash of alertness to her mind, but not enough. She tore her eyes from the treeline, and stepped off to dunk her head into the ocean.
It worked; partly, at least. The ocean had a touch more feeling to it than the rain, the salt eliciting a sharp sting from a number of the cuts and scrapes she had yet to fully notice she was afflicted with, and allowing her to wash some of the exhaustion from her eyes. She pulled herself upright, her hair tangling up around her face, and set her eyes back on the treeline. No, she decided. That wasn’t normal. She trudged her way over for a closer look.
Soon enough, her statement was amended. This was a serious concern. The damage to the treeline was sporadic; inconsistent, too. Most were entirely unharmed. Some appeared to have taken a heavy impact; roots pulled halfway from the soil, trunks cracked as though hit by a speeding car. One had apparently exploded, the stump sticking jagged spikes in all directions at its point of termination, the remainder of the trunk and canopy leaning propped against another, less obliterated palm tree. Someone had fought a battle here. She glanced towards one of the closest points of damage; a trunk sliced cleanly in two across its breadth, the severed ends entirely smooth besides the scorch marks. She recognized that spell. It was one of hers.
Why don’t I remember this?
Jackie sat herself down on the severed stump, and tried to think. It was still groggy, but she was alert to it now. She searched her memory: days of searching on that miserable, empty planet, coming back to catch Peter at the resupply, sitting through his words, and working at her desk until her energy gave out. Then, she woke up on the beach.
That wasn’t right. There was something else in there, a memory that seemed to pull away from her even as she reached for it. A flash of residual determination. A choked kind of joy. Scrambling through the treeline after an adversary whose face she couldn’t seem to conjure. He’d been so slippery. Impossible to keep pinned down. Why did that idea make her proud?
With an effort of will, Jackie pushed the memory further. If she could just put a face to her opponent-
It was like a screeching in her head. The piercing note of smooth glass scraping against itself. It set her teeth on edge, and in that moment of distraction, the image faded, leaving behind nothing but a pounding headache.
“… Someone’s wiped my memory. Right. Tylenol.”
Another trudge, back to her cabin. She opened the door, shrugged the rain-drenched coat from about her shoulders, and ambled in the direction of her medicine cupboard.
Painkillers and hangover cures. The ultimate tool for living on your own.
She tugged open the cupboard door, grabbed a sheath of headache tablets from a shelf, and popped one out into her mouth, her free hand lowering towards the sink to grab some water.
That was when she saw it: A clump of reddish hair, sitting in the drain, coated with ocean slime and soap suds.
Something started screaming in her brain. A rush of joy and half-formed memory. The pain in her skull intensified. She swallowed the Tylenol dry. Today was clearly just that kind of day.
Whoever left this much behind was far too sloppy. They left so much for me to track.
“Seriously dude, why didn’t you tell me you played guitar? We could have made a studio so much earlier.”
Of all the changes the past year had wrought on Casper’s life, his friendship with James Toranaga was the one he was most consistently okay with. James was kind, and fun, and had a caring streak to him that had helped to soothe Casper more than once. James was good.
He was also childish, self-centred, and had a level of ambient energy that often wore on Casper’s patience, especially when it hit manic pixie dream boy levels.
Casper hefted the latest box up off the ground, and sighed. Of course James wanted a recording space. Of course he did.
“I don’t know what to tell you. I just didn’t think of it.”
They were in the basement, clearing a section of the floor of James and Bex’s abandoned toys so as to better indulge James’ sudden and adamant resolution that they ought to form a band.
James dumped a pair of his old action figures into the container by his leg, and raised an eyebrow.
“For ten months?” he asked.
“Yeah. I had stuff going on.”
James let out a put upon sigh.
“You’re gonna be a dork forever, you know that?”
Casper nodded gamely. Being called a ‘dork’ by James was still deeply funny in a way he would never admit to.
“Ok. Why this time, though?”
“Because.” James groaned. “You’re too shy. You won’t talk to more than one new person at a time. You pretend not to know about stuff unless it’s nerdy, and when you’ve got a super cool special skill, you hide it from everyone you know for ten whole months.”
“Guitar’s not that cool,” he murmured, trying for just the right level of indifference to irritate his friend. “It’s just a thing I do, man.”
“Are you kidding?” James asked. “Playing guitar is the coolest. Anyone who can do it is automatically like, ten percent hotter. Just, straight away.”
Casper snickered at that.
“Including me?” he asked, pretending not to notice the flustered note the words conjured in his friend’s mind. It was a crush. James was allowed. Wouldn’t stop Casper teasing him about it, though.
To his credit, James took the jab rather smoothly.
“Maybe,” he admitted, his tone a tad coy. “You did come off pretty cute when I saw you playing.”
Casper’s grin widened.
“No wonder you got so star-struck.”
“Did not!” James retorted playfully.
“Did too,” Casper teased. “You haven’t wanted to make out so hard since you asked me out.”
It was odd, he thought, how easily they talked like this. Any of the girls in his class, or even more intimidating, another boy, and Casper would’ve clammed up within a second, especially if it was someone cute. James was different. There was a stability to it; a knowledge that he could say the dumbest shit, and it wouldn’t matter. It was easier.
Even so, there were moments when one or other of them fumbled.
James went a little red, his gaze returning to the box he was still packing.
“… Too far?” Casper asked.
“It’s fine,” James muttered. “Just… stuff.”
Casper nodded. He went back to shifting boxes, waiting for James to gather his thoughts. It didn’t take long.
“Tasha thinks I’m super into you,” James muttered, perhaps a minute later.
Casper almost shrugged.
I mean, you are.
Out loud, he merely grunted.
“She thinks that’s why it didn’t work out with Cody.”
Casper felt a momentary thrill of satisfaction at that idea, followed shortly after by a touch of guilt.
C’mon, man. Don’t be that guy.
“Ok. So, what do you think?”
James took a moment there, his expression stumped, his mind frustrated.
“I don’t know,” he said eventually. “You’re the only person I can talk to. It kinda sucks thinking you’re hot sometimes.”
Casper considered that a moment. He bent down for the last of the boxes, belatedly helping James pack the last of the items, then picked it up. James was embarrassed. Not quite flustered. The kind of apprehension that came with waiting for rejection. Casper had to question that.
“I get that,” he said eventually. “It’s the same for me sometimes.”
James looked up at him, a note of surprise playing clear inside his head.
“‘Course it is,” Casper confirmed, careful with his words. It was different for James; the appeal of it was touched by notes of genuine infatuation, almost romantic. For Casper, it was simpler. He found James attractive, just like a dozen other people that he knew. But that was it. How to reassure without leading him on? “You’re cute, dude. I notice it sometimes. Kinda awkward when it’s the one guy you can’t lie to.”
“… Huh.” James thought about that for a while, uncertainty warring against something not quite hope. “So, when we went out- I mean. You seemed sorta… Not that into it.”
“I wasn’t,” Casper confirmed, bracing himself for the inevitable spike of disappointment, then pushing past it. “Honestly? I kinda just don’t have time for that right now. I mean. Dealing with Mom and Dad’s a lot. And you’re a lot sometimes, too, and it’s exhausting. And you’re cute, sure, but like, I don’t think I have the energy for that stuff right now.”
“Oh,” James said, taking a while to work through the implications there. “So… Not now, but maybe… Later?”
Casper considered that, then nodded.
“Yeah. Maybe.” He had to suppress a snort at the surge of hope that allowance caused in James. “You know, when life gets easier.”
“Right,” James agreed, a touch too hasty. “Later. Maybe. No promises.”
Casper snickered. “Yeah. Tasha’s so wrong,” he teased. “You’re not into me at all.”
James’ retort was cut off by a quiet pop from the direction of the storage room in the basement’s far corner, followed near-immediately by a crash, and a torrent of muttered swearing. As one, the boys wheeled around towards the new intrusion, shields flaring brightly into place across their skin, James’ right hand raised in a casting stance. For his part, Casper extended his power outward, trying to get a sense of them. The mind he met was frantic; flooded with joy and desperation. Far less deadened than he remembered. Even so, he recognized the feel of it from the weeks following Charlie’s abduction.
“Whoever you are,” James called, his voice clear and even, in spite of the sudden nature of the new arrival. “Come out nice and slow, oka-”
“James,” Casper murmured. “I think it’s Charlie’s mom.”
“Oh,” James muttered, the momentary professionalism awkwardly falling aside. “Hiya, Jackie.”
Jackie didn’t answer, still just swearing quietly to herself. The boys looked between themselves, then, on a shared shrug, they edged forwards. It said something rather depressing that neither of them dropped their shields. Before either one of them could reach her, however, Jacqueline Vance stepped into view, expression panicked, eyes darting about the room, hands together, nails scrabbling frantically at her own wrists. She caught sight of James first.
“Hi, Jackie-” James tried again, only to be cut off as she finally addressed him.
“James!” Jackie breathed, rushing forwards, her hands grasping the boy by either shoulder even as he took an instinctive half-step back. “I need to speak to Peter. Where is he?”
Even without his powers, Casper could have read the desperation in every line of her. From the way she moved and spoke, to the sheer frantic energy with which she gripped onto James, his knees buckling slightly at the sheer pressure being exerted on his shoulders.
“What?” James stammered, wrong footed. “I don’t-”
“He’s at work,” Casper said, his own voice loud and clear, intentionally pulling Jackie’s full attention onto him. He dug in his pocket for his phone. “I’ll call him for you. Put James down. You’re scaring him.”
There was a momentary pause as Jackie seemed to register her own behaviour, then a muttered apology as she let James go. Casper opened up his contacts list to Peter’s page, and handed off his phone, grasping James’ hand in his and taking a few deliberate paces back.
“I wasn’t scared,” James muttered, a mixture of annoyance and embarrassment bubbling in his head.
“Well, I was,” Casper answered, giving his hand a squeeze. “Maybe stick around and keep me safe?”
More embarrassment from James, this time mixed with flattery and a flustered kind of warmth. It did the trick, though. He was placated. He squeezed back.
“… Okay. Whatever.”